Skip to main content

Color Story: “Bummer Green”

Oct 26 2019

Emily Yoshida Catalogs The Chromatic Design Of Cautionary Tales

Every spring humans celebrate the return of green to nature’s palette by doing all manner of unbearable things: wearing ballet flats in the rain, enduring picnics in sixty degree weather (under still-mostly-bare trees), and hiding candy for our children in clumps of artificial plastic grass. Easter grass—you know the stuff: wispy, iridescent and weightless, clinging together in tangled whorls, colored in a range of troubling, irradiated greens. Easter and all its pagan forebears are supposed to be about rebirth and renewal; this stuff is fucking eternal.

I like to think that Erwin Weder and his son Donald of Highland Supply Corporation in Highland, Illinois had this in mind in 1979 when filing their patent “Process For Making Decorative Grass.” The most prominent shade that leaps out from my memories of the rain-logged Washington State egg hunts of my childhood is something I’ll call Bummer Green: In a mystery zone that isn’t quite seafoam, nor neon, nor the cheerfully unnatural glow of terminal green. “Mint green” feels like a euphemism; if it is a mint it’s artificial spearmint, with all the throat-clinging bitterness that entails. It’s technically , but it’s the most un-verdant green on the color wheel. If you grow up in the Pacific Northwest, you green — brilliant emerald, dark moss, rich and wet and loamy and everywhere. Discovering those little artificial nests among the shivering wet blades of the real stuff every April was probably my first encounter with postmodernism.The practice of bringing the outdoors indoors has always been a little meta. People began to bring Christmas trees as we know them today into their houses in the 16th century—they were hung with fruit and called “Paradise Trees,” a remnant of the medieval Christmastide pantomimes that had since been banned by the church. These trees actually had nothing to do with the nativity at all, but were rather meant to evoke the tree in the Garden of Eden, hence the name. The practice of filling springtime baskets with grass and seeds to be blessed for a good harvest goes back to both ancient Middle Eastern and Germanic religions. Arranging nature, via a religious rite or otherwise, is one of the ways we assert our dominance and/or influence over it.

Bummer green is the shade that most aptly captures this uncanny, paradoxical state of arrest. Putting this color on one’s body feels like waving a distress flag, and there’s a subversive thrill to that. It provides its own unflattering fluorescent lighting, put it on and you’re instantly in a hospital hallway or in an underground lab, or in a mad scientist lab coat, scowling about how the scientific community does not appreciate your groundbreaking genetic experiments. The wearer looks at least a touch unwell; nearly every skin tone looks sapped by it, which makes it particularly ironic in athleisure. It’s Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ (1995) nearly keeling over in aerobics class as she becomes increasingly convinced that the very air she breathes is killing her. Nature cannot coexist with Bummer Green, it needs its own sealed-off pod and a HEPA filter. Bummer Green hails from a future where the trees have all dried up and the storm drains have been clogged with clumps of plastic Easter grass and the idea of “real” green is theoretical at best.

Bummer green is everywhere in the 1975 dystopian sci-fi film ; it’s the default shade of its very infrastructure. In the film (a very liberal adaptation of the novel of the same name by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson), set in the aftermath of a vaguely defined ecological catastrophe, humankind has retreated to a cluster of biodomes forming a futuristic metropolis. Life inside the bubble, which more or less resembles a giant mall (because its interiors were largely shot in the sprawling Dallas Market Center), is peaceful and hedonistic in a very Studio 54 kind of way. But there’s one catch: upon their 30th birthday citizens are rounded up and ceremonially killed in a spectacle called “Carrousel.”In the society of , the color of your clothes literally signifies your proximity to your own mortality. Those mid to late twentysomethings circling the drain are dressed in scarlet letter red; those in their late teens and early twenties, officially over the hill in the world of , and most primed to have a sudden existential emergency, wear green. When female lead Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter) first materializes in Logan’s (Michael York) sunken-den bachelor pad she’s wearing a sparkly, sallow lime disco dress, slit daringly up the entire right side of her body (it’s iconic enough of a look to have become a risqué cosplay standard). She’s put herself on “the circuit”—basically the version of Tinder—despite or because she’s grieving a recently Carrouselled friend. Logan just wants to have sex, but once she’s in his apartment, Jessica’s mood swings, and she finds herself contemplating her own mortality. (Bummer green is emphatically not horny.) Even in her day-to-day look, Jessica favors monochrome bummer, down to her footie-slipper shoes that prove woefully inept outside the biosphere. (“I hate outside!” She screams in frustration after her first encounter with mud.)

Despite its sexy disco trappings, is a rather conservative cautionary tale against youth culture and free love—the book’s prologue directly invokes the student protests of the 1960s as the catalyzing event of its far-future faux-utopia. All the children of the indoor city are grown in vitro, and the concept of family, and thus family values, is long forgotten. In that lens, the sickly green that floods its corridors and administrative centers suggests barrenness, infertility, a future with no future. It flushes out the biological; its agenda is the chromatic opposite of red-blooded.But bummer green is also probably the defining shade of the 1970s housewife, conjuring visions of country club pastels and marshmallow fluff salads and picture-perfect Easter mornings. Its radioactive rise in prominence coincided with a cultural battle over the very idea of what it meant to be a wife, perhaps illustrated most unforgettably in 1975’s . In the film’s horrifying climactic scene, Katharine Ross’s Joanna discovers the synthetic double that has been built to replace her—a docile, beady-eyed creature that can’t bleed or get angry, a gauzily synthetic bummer green caftan draped trollishly over her perfectly engineered tits and smooth Barbie crotch. As she approaches to snuff out her sweaty, disheveled original, we cut to the supermarket, where Joanna’s replacement pushes her cart around, exchanging robotic hellos with her fellow Wives, all decked out in wide brimmed hats and pristine white gloves.The fashion sense of the Stepford Wives seems absurd today, but it wasn’t that far from the Laura Ashley frocks and Butterrick patterns of the time. As the women’s liberation movement was gaining steam, the pill became mainstream and Roe v. Wade became law, housewife style became more and more baroque. Maxi dresses sprouted tier after eyeletted tier, the kitchen apron doubled in size and became ruffly pinafores straight off the set of , to be worn even when one wasn’t pulling a pork roast out of the oven. The image of the 1950s housewife was going supernova, and its blast radius reached all the way back to pioneer times.

The colliding resurgence of both bummer green and the frilly, hypermodest dresses of Batsheva, Molly Goddard and to some extent Gucci doesn’t feel accidental. While some wring their hands over the at-first-glance baffling urge to dress up like a mail order bride on the Oregon Trail, none of these looks feel directly nostalgic. Some of the more overtly synthetic iterations feel like a direct rebuttal to any idealized notion of going “back to the land.” It’s a fuck-you to legislators who still see women as hired wombs whose sole purpose is to populate the homestead—spitefully playing along and covering up our collarbones like it’s 1875. It’s pouring toxic waste all over the romantic notion of an endlessly fertile wild frontier. The pioneer dress and Waldorf salad green are all the more dystopian for all the utopia—homestead, suburb—they supposedly evoke.

Betty Ford loved bummer green. This gown of hers on display in the Smithsonian is forever seared in my memory after seeing it during some trip to D.C. as a teen; I instinctively understood it as a manifestation of stress, like a cephalopod going panic-mode pale when it’s under attack, the perfect armor for the surreal aftermath of Nixon and Watergate. (Here’s another gown I hadn’t seen before, almost identical to the Stepford Wives dress.) The ideological war being fought out in dystopian cinema of the time was also being fought in Ford’s short but impactful run as first lady. To many of her critics, Ford had One Job: to assure everyone that everything was just fine after Nixon’s impeachment, to return order to the domestic White House. Instead, Ford was outspoken on sexual agency, breast cancer research (she was diagnosed shortly after her husband took office) and prevention, abortion rights and substance abuse. Her platform, inasmuch as she had one, was “We Still Have A Lot of Stuff To Figure Out, You Guys,” hardly that of an agreeable spouse of a conservative president. It was only after Gerald Ford lost the reelection to Jimmy Carter that Betty spoke publicly about her own struggle with alcoholism and opioid addiction, the private misery that had been mounting for much of her marriage.

When we are in distress, when the world around us feels like it has conspired to choke us out, it’s cathartic to externalize that discord. When we’re rebellious teens, we tend to do it in the loudest, most unmistakably upset way possible. But when we’re adults, and our livelihood depends on keeping up some semblance of normalcy in order to put food on the table, we have to pick our catharsis more strategically. Bummer green is the color of a politely hopeless tweet about climate change punctuated with the upside-down-smiley emoji, the glow of a laptop in a darkened bedroom, battling insomnia with . Bummer green isn’t mad enough to get fired or file for divorce; or at least, it won’t let itself get mad enough. It’s never satisfying, it never fixes anything. But at least there’s no mistaking that something’s wrong.

Night Call.